Wednesday, July 23, 2014

It’s Real. It’s Original. It’s Rockford, Illinois

By Emma Krasov, photography by Emma Krasov

Blinded by Sun, who would see the beautiful Earth if it weren’t for us, earthlings, putting it on the galactic map?
Outshined by the giant tourist attraction Chicago, little Rockford, IL, nevertheless holds its own.
“Real. Original. A wonderful place to spend a life – or a weekend!” That’s how Rockford, the third largest city in Illinois, USA (population slightly over 150 000) markets itself to the world.
A day trip to “forest city” a.k.a. “the city of gardens and rivers” reveals a string of places that would make any large metropolis proud.

The Coronado Theatre, a historical 1927 movie palace, is meticulously restored to its original opulence. Built in the Art Deco and Spanish Baroque Revival style, with Italianate and Oriental features thrown into the mix, it’s nicknamed “Rockford’s Wonder Theater.”

The auditorium ceiling is painted as blue sky with clouds and stars, all seats are covered with plush red velvet, and the organ player, Bob Bates, performs the swanky tunes of the roaring 20s on the modernized and computerized instrument during public tours.

Rockford Art Museum (RAM) in existence since 1913, features an extensive collection of 1700 pieces in its five major sections: Modern and Contemporary American Art, American Masters from 1830-1940, Photography, Contemporary Glass, and Outsider Art.   

The art and design scene is booming with well-attended 317 Studio & Gallery, State of the Art Contemporary Art Gallery, and Rockford Art Deli studio that produces “inedible goods and foods for thoughts.”

As for edible goods, I would do a special trip to Rockford just to indulge in airy buttery Swedish pancakes at the Stockholm Inn restaurant (“Swedish Heritage. Swedish Traditions”) decorated with timeless Carl Larsson imagery.
And if a day in Rockford, IL, is not enough - there's always Hilton Garden Inn to spend a night in comfort.
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Thursday, July 17, 2014

Adventures on the Romantische Strasse

By Emma Krasov, photography by Emma Krasov

There are dozens of historical monuments, charming little towns, cozy hotels and long-standing restaurants along the Romantische Strasse that runs for 400 km in the South of Germany. Stretched between Würzburg on the Main River and Füssen in the foothills of the Alps, it’s impossible to cover in one short trip, so every traveler has his or her own adventures on the Romantic Road.
Mine started shortly after I’ve arrived at the northernmost town of Würzburg from where the luxurious buses or hired cars take tourists down the Road that crosses five rivers and seven distinctly different regions, mostly in Bavaria.

Smitten by the grandeur of the baroque Würzburger Residenz (the Prince Bishop’s Residence) surrounded by manicured lawns and geometric gardens, I made a misstep, twisted my ankle, and fell on my precious digital camera.

My hired driver, Mr. Köksal Balikci, and a couple of passersby rushed to my rescue. They helped me steady up, and started saying something encouraging in German, smiling and nodding to express their sympathy and assure me that everything will be just fine.
I, too, was smiling and nodding, thinking to myself that my Romantic Road adventure threatens to end before it has begun. An attempt to step on my twisted foot sent a jolt of sharp pain through my leg, and brought tears to my eyes… Mentally, I was fast-considering possible solutions: drop everything and fly back home to my loving husband; rush to a doctor and risk being grounded with some kind of a cast or crutches; continue my trip sitting in Mr. Balikci’s car and observing everything through the window, or – instantly become a doctor and heal myself…
I declined my driver’s kind offer to take me to a hospital, and asked instead to stop at the nearest pharmacy. Equipped with an ice pack and a bandage, I made myself comfortable on the back seat, tightly wrapped my traitorous ankle and covered it with ice.        
During our first stop in hard-to-pronounce Tauberbischofsheim with Neo-Gothic Town Hall and medieval half-timbered houses, and later in Lauda-Königshofen, surrounded by vineyards and bright-yellow rapeseed fields, I discovered another unfortunate consequence of my fall. My camera shutter was severely damaged and refused to open or close unless I helped it do it with my own fingers. I decided to continue taking pictures “manually,” hoping that at least some of them would be good enough to look at.

At Bad Mergentheim, first mentioned in historical records in 1058, where we arrived for an overnight, a young tour guide was already waiting for me at the Best Western Premier Parkhotel lobby. She held an umbrella, since it was starting to rain, and offered to take me to the Castle of the Teutonic Order, to Altes Rathaus, built in 1564, and to the spa garden with mineral springs and a drinking facility.

My ankle was silently wailing from pain, but my curiosity took over, and we started our walking tour slowly, but surely. I’ve learned not only about the historical past of the town, but about its current popularity with medical tourists from all over Europe. A modern spa resort, Bad Mergentheim is known for its four springs, named the Karl’s Spring, the Albert’s Spring, the Wilhelm’s Spring, and the Paul’s Spring, and according to a legend, discovered by a local shepherd who noticed that his sheep loved to drink sulphate water and felt much better afterwards. I welcomed our short sit-down at the spa where I was dutifully sipping the healing waters from all four springs before heading back – so much slower than before.
In my clean and simple hotel room, I took the bandage off my ankle and observed the damage. My entire foot was swollen and blue. It was painful to the touch and just painful even if I moved it ever so slightly. I took a couple of painkillers, and placed my foot atop a folded blanket and a rolled up bath towel. 
Next morning, at the hotel breakfast, I declined my kind driver’s yet another offer to take me to a doctor, and braced myself for a day of wonderful sightseeing and periodical painkiller intakes.  

A town of Weikersheim is known for its stunning Renaissance castle with a baroque park. The enormous 35-meter-long Knights’ Hall of the castle is solely dedicated to hunting scenes and decorated with paintings and three-dimensional representations of wild animals. At the well-preserved park, a sculptural group of gnomes greets a visitor with their curiously realistic facial expressions, while Roman gods and goddesses boast distinctly Teutonic chins.

A carved wooden altar dedicated to the Virgin Mary in Herrgottskirche is a main attraction of Creglingen. It was created in 1505-10 by a brilliant late Gothic artist Tilman Riemenschneider. Another specialty of the town is Thimble Museum with an extensive collection of sewing tools turned into art pieces.    

We made a longer stop at Rothenburg ob der Tauber with its completely preserved 14th century town wall and its impressive Town Hall, half Gothic (1250-1400)-half Renaissance (1572-78). Overcoming the nagging pain in the ankle and driven by my insatiable curiosity I thoroughly researched the Historical Vaults and Imperial City Dungeon with an exhibition about the Thirty Years War (1618-1648); German Christmas Museum with tree ornaments of all time periods, and the Medieval Crime Museum displaying the tools of punishment far exceeding any imaginable crimes.

At Schillingsfürst, the imposing baroque castle was closed for the public, so we just looked at it from a terrace of a hotel coffee shop Die Post, where the hospitable owner Fritz Leiblein treated us to a home-made peach pie and a story about the last representatives of the 1000-year-old family of Hohenlohe-Schillingsfürst – a mother and a daughter who still live in the castle and sometime make appearances in his café.    
On our next stop in Dinkelsbühl, after photographing the tower of St. George’s – a stunning late-Gothic church built in 1499 by Nikolaus Essler, and the picturesque Weinmarkt with multi-colored half-timbered houses – I dropped on the back seat of the car like a sack of potatoes, wincing from pain.  
Mr. Balikci told me that before we continue our route, he had to stop at the town’s tourism bureau. Five minutes later, he emerged from the office holding a nice polished-wood alpenstock with a sharp metal tip. “Here,” he said, “a souvenir for you.”
That was indeed a souvenir! By the bent handle of the walking stick there was a metal label with an engraved dedication to the 1000th anniversary of the town. I thanked my considerate driver and decided that since we were already half-way down the Romantic Road, and I was so well-equipped by now, I would definitely make it.  

We made a short stop in Nördlingen with its five gates and 12 towers of the original circular town wall; looked at “Daniel” – the 90-meter bell tower built in 1427-1505 from the porous local stone, and marveled at the 13th century Rathaus with the external flight of stairs in Renaissance style.
By Donauwörth I walked, piercing the ground with my alpenstock, at the confluence of two rivers – Wörnitz and Donau, and then took some pictures of the central street Reichsstrasse with its majestic patrician houses. 
When we finally arrived in Augsburg for an overnight stay (much later than planned) my new city guide was upset because of the lack of time for a full-blown tour. I had to reassure her that with my impaired walking ability our tour was to be curtailed anyway. Nevertheless, I followed her to the splendid Golden Hall of the 1620 Rathaus and to the 1607 Zeughaus with a stunning St. Michael’s group over the gate – fascinated by the rich history of the city founded 2000 years ago by the Roman Emperor Augustus.  

We walked from the splendid Maximilianstrasse to Fuggerei – the world’s oldest social settlement built in 1516 by the notorious Jakob Fugger Reiche (the rich). In the last 500 years, very little has changed in Fuggerei. The city within the city contains 67 well-kempt houses with 147 flats, a church and a fountain. The rental fee is the lowest in the world – 1 euro a year. All Fuggerei dwellers have to adhere to strict requirements – they have to be genuinely poor, well-behaved, Catholics, and born in Augsburg. In addition, they have to pray for the Fugger family three times a day.
Late at night, in my room at Hotel am Rathaus I treated my stubbornly blue and swollen ankle to a new portion of ice, took some more painkillers, and fell asleep in happy anticipation of the major goal of my trip Schloss Neuschwanstein – a fairy tale castle that inspired Tchaikovsky to create “Swan Lake.” But first, I had to get there…
Early in the morning, right after our hotel breakfast, Mr. Balikci and I were on our way, exploring more beautiful towns of the Romantic Road. 

In Landsberg am Lech, founded more than 850 years ago by Henry the Lion, the elaborately decorated façade of the 1700 Town Hall bears Dominikus Zimmerman’s stucco work and icon-like portraits representing the virtues of a town councilor – Honor, Bravery, Steadfastness, and Courage.
In Schongau, the largely intact town walls from the 13th, and 15th-17th centuries stand witness to the town’s rich history as well as its Gothic former Town Hall and baroque decorations of the Parish Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.
Schwangau – the “Village of Roayl Castles” is surrounded by four lakes – Alpsee, Bannwaldsee, Forggensee, and of course, Schwansee (the swan lake). In this mountainous village, I said good bye to Mr. Balikci, who safely delivered me to the Hotel Weinbauer and left for his next route driving the Romantische Strasse Couch.
I had 15 minutes before my next tour, and spent them icing my ankle and deciding what was more important – taking painkillers or paying attention to my newly acquired stomachache. At the arrival of my tour guide I forgot all my troubles – we were heading to the Neuschwanstein Castle!

I recognized its towers and crenellations from afar. Built by King Ludwig II in 1869-86, the castle on a mountain top above the Pöllat Gorge gradually arrived from a fog over a darkened forest beneath. Even besieged by tourists, grouped and numbered according to their tour time slots, it maintained its mysterious appeal, romantic grandeur, and dreamlike architectural wonder.

Limping and heavily leaning on my walking stick, I braved the spiral staircases of all the five stories of the castle, first up then down, trying not to miss anything from a brief English-language tour.

The inner facilities of the castle are lavishly decorated with paintings depicting the legends of Lohengrin, Tangeiser and Parzival. Every room bears multiple images of swans – from embroidery patterns to life-size porcelain figures with meticulous detailing. The Byzantine-style chapel has domed niches covered in gold leaf, and a chandelier fashioned after a bejeweled crown. In the royal bedroom, scenes from Tristan and Isolde cover the walls, and blue silk brocade curtains conceal the King’s bed with wood carvings of exquisite workmanship. No wonder the castle is visited by approximately a million and a half people a year…          

In the nearby Füssen, my tour guide showed me the late-Gothic streets and squares of the old town center, a former Benedictine Monastery of St. Mang, and a sign written over a gate on the outskirts of the town, “The End of the Romantic Road.”
I won’t go into details of my trip back home when in every airport security agents were trying to take away my helpful alpenstock because of its sharp metal tip. “Sure, take it,” I said, hopping on one foot. “I can make it without any support all the way to San Francisco!”
When I finally arrived at my doctor’s office, still leaning on my trusty souvenir, a nurse brought a wheelchair in the X-ray room, and said, “Get in. You’re not walking anywhere anymore.”
Strangely enough, I experienced a feeling of relief, even though a minor bone in my ankle appeared to be broken. I was glad I haven’t succumbed to the circumstances and absorbed as much as I could along the magical Romantic Road.
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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Cool Stuttgart, Hot Baden-Baden

By Emma Krasov, photography by Emma Krasov

Many Germans like to joke that “Baden-Baden is so good it has to be repeated twice.” In reality, the double name of the world-famous mineral springs resort is a remnant of its historical past. The city of Baden used to be the capital of the land Baden, hence its double name. In the time period following WWII, when some of the German lands were merging into larger administrative regions, Stuttgart became the capital of the land Baden-Württemberg, but the glory of Baden-Baden hasn’t diminished one bit.

After a short flight with Germanwings – an affordable European air carrier, I had only half a day in Stuttgart, and so I joined a walking tour with an experienced tourism bureau guide.

The sixth largest city in Germany, Stuttgart is compactly grouped around its 1927 railway station Hauptbahnhof, its 58-meter tower crowned with a rotating Mercedes Benz logo. The first motor carriage with high-speed engine was patented by Benz in 1886, and since then the auto industry giant became the biggest employer in the area; the encircled three-point star meaning, “in the air, on the water, on the ground, and – worldwide.”

Within the walking distance from Hauptbahnhof there are grand palaces and museums, restaurants, big name stores, spacious parks and a bustling farmers market in a 1914 Art Nouveau Markthalle building overflowing with fresh produce. 
The central square Schlossplatz with a majestic fountain in front of the baroque Neues Schloss (new palace) built in 1807 is a favorite gathering place for the city dwellers.
The 15th century Renaissance Alte Schloss (old palace) is now home to Württemberg State museum displaying historical artifacts from the Stone Age to the present.   

At Schillerplatz there is a statue of Friedrich Schiller – the great German poet and playwright who attended a military academy here in 1773-1780 – created by Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen.

We finished our tour at the Cube café on top of the cubic glass building of the Kunstmuseum Stuttgart – the city museum of art. I enjoyed my pasta dish with fresh seasonal asparagus in the elegant see-through café overlooking the 1841 Jubilee Column with goddess Concordia, and the golden statue of Mercury on a column outside Alte Kanzlei (old chancellery) in the city center.    

Back at Houptbahnhof, I boarded Deutsche Bahn train to Baden-Baden. In a little more than an hour, from my cozy room at Magnetberg hotel on a hilltop, I was contemplating the beautiful little town, all green and awashed in sunlight.

A walking tour revealed some fascinating details of its rich history. Inside the neoclassical Kurhaus there is lavishly decorated in Belle Époque style Baden-Baden Casino. Marlena Dietrich called it the most beautiful casino in the world, and famously added, “I would know, I’ve gambled in all of them.”

A few steps from the Kurhaus there is a neoclassical colonnade of the 1842 Trinkhalle (drinking hall) decorated with well-preserved murals depicting romantic scenes from old folk tales and legends of the region. More than 150 years ago, the resort visitors were “taking the waters” here by walking from one drinking fountain to another, sipping the healthful mineral water delivered from the 12 springs of Baden-Baden.
Back in the day, while strolling through the Trinkhalle, one could’ve met Russian writers Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852), Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883), Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881), countless European royals and nobles, and various other celebrities. By the end of the 19th century, when taking of the waters had switched from drinking to bathing, the resort became even more popular as a must-go summer destination for the rich and famous.

The oldest Baden-Baden spa Friedrichsbad is located in 1877 “temple of wellbeing.” Hot showers, cold baths, steam rooms, saunas, warm and hot air baths, and even a vigorous brush and soap massage are included in a three-hour program divided between 17 stations, each with various degrees of heat and a recommended amount of time to be spent there.
A color brochure of the spa depicts awe-inspiring images of stained glass windows, painted tiles, arched doorways, and a glass dome lined with graceful caryatides overlooking a gigantic round pool underneath.  
Anticipating my visit to the historical spa I perused the brochure, not paying much attention to its “traditionally garment free” statement. I imagined something akin women’s shower facilities in an American spa, distinctly separated from the men’s area, but I was in for a surprise!
Upon arrival at the facility I quickly discovered that there was only one co-ed locker room, and that the entire bathing temple was in fact, unisex. Naked people of any age and gender were walking around rather nonchalantly…
Wrapped in a large white towel, I proceeded to the showers. The gushing showerheads were out there in the open, without any dividers between them. By the towel shelf there was a little holder where visitors could store their eyeglasses so that they wouldn’t be damaged by the heat and humidity of the spa.
I experienced a feeling of profound relief the moment I took off my glasses. Thanks to my writing-induced near-sightedness, I couldn’t see a thing without them. All the naked people around me turned into blurry silhouettes; their faces became undiscernible, and their eyes couldn’t be seen at all.     
I felt my own face relaxing and changing from anxious to serenely indifferent. When a female masseuse with a soapy brush tore the towel off my hands and tossed it into a bin, I realized that the next towel I will encounter only at the end of my spa treatments, but it didn’t dampen my mood.   
The healing waters of Baden-Baden did their magic. Leaving the Friedrichsbad I felt like a new woman. My jet lag fatigue was gone, and I continued to explore the beautiful town on foot with a spring in my step.

I walked along the emerald-green Lichtentaler Allee – the 350-year-old park along the Oos River; visited the Frieder Burda Museum, where Max Beckmann’s paintings created in Baden-Baden in 1928-36 are displayed among other modern and contemporary artwork, and had a nice early dinner at a new and very popular restaurant Rizzi serving fresh local cuisine.

From there, I walked to the world-renowned Casino Baden-Baden – the oldest and largest in Germany, designed in the style of French palaces and developed by the visionary impresario Edouard Benazet and his son Jacques in the 19th century.

In the gilded halls of the Casino, decorated with classical sculptures, period furniture, crystal chandeliers, and red velvet draperies, Fyodor Dostoyevsky once famously lost his last shirt to gambling, after which he created his masterpiece novel, “The Gambler.” Although I was sure it was totally worth it, I realized that the evening gown I was wearing in compliance with the Casino rules wouldn’t constitute any value, unlike Dostoyevsky’s shirt, so I resorted to gambling away my 20 euros at the historical roulette tables, and left close to midnight, feeling extremely satisfied with my visit.

Next morning, I took the waters again, this time at the contemporary glass-walled Caracalla Spa, opened in 1985, where everyone was wearing a swimsuit – at least in the first floor area. A giant indoor-outdoor pool with thermal water close to body temperature features a spectacular water dome, multiple waterfalls, whirlpools, massage jets, and flow channels. It is surrounded by hot and cold water grottos, scented saunas and steam rooms, brine inhalation rooms, and long chairs under tanning lamps. 
On the second floor, where clothing is not permitted, there is an entire sauna complex with Roman mosaics and pillars evocative of the bathing culture in the time of Emperor Caracalla. One can spend hours here, wondering from Meditation Sauna to Aroma Sauna, and from Blue Space Sensory Room to Green Relaxation Room and Solarium.

Before leaving the magical Baden-Baden I paid a visit to Faberge Museum – the first in the world dedicated to the exquisite jeweler Carl Faberge and featuring over 700 pieces created by his firm. Russian imperial Easter eggs, fine jewelry pieces, everyday objects and animal statuettes made with semi-precious stones, as well as copper and brass articles are presented here in an intimate setting of one of the historical buildings along the tree-lined Sophienstrasse in the city center.